Science of TRON: Getting Up to Speed with Teleportation and Quantum Computing

Physicists give TRON filmmakers the lowdown on how to digitize a person and transport him into a computer game

Disney Enterprises

LOS ANGELES—When Steven Lisberger made the original 1982 cult film TRON, he was ineligible for an Academy Award for visual effects, because he'd used computers—and believe it or not, that was considered a form of cheating at that time.

Fast forward 28 years to the sequel, TRON: Legacy, and not only have computers become a celebrated part of its filmmaking, but the movie's story and design address the significant advances made in the fields of quantum computing and artificial intelligence since then.

"We weren't interested in making a movie about technology—we'd talk about the technology through the relationships between characters," says director Joe Kosinski. "You won't hear about gigabytes and Twitter and Google, because any technical jargon would be dated five years from now. Once you got into the world of TRON, we thought of it more as a Western with another set of rules."

But those rules had to be plausible. Long before TRON: Legacy began filming, Kosinski and producer Sean Bailey spent hours picking the brains of physicists, neuroscientists and roboticists for ideas on how to ground high-concept plot points and scene design in actual scientific principles.

In fact, science and technology have been woven directly into the film's promotional campaign, with the latest event occurring Monday night when Kosinski and Bailey reconvened with two of the film's consulting scientists—California Institute of Technology physicist Sean Carroll and retired Jet Propulsion Laboratory physicist John Dick—on the stage of Disney's El Capitan Theater in Hollywood for a screening and panel discussion.

"We wanted a strong science foundation at key moments throughout the film, so we invited some of the smartest people we could find to provide answers we could incorporate,"  Kosinski said. "The discussion improved parts of the story and served as a springboard to better things in the movie."

TRON: Legacy, which picks up 20 years after TRON, chronicles a son's (Garrett Hedlund) search for his father (Jeff Bridges), who is trapped in a computer game that continues to evolve on its own. The panelists summarized some of the topics covered during their initial meetings: what artificial intelligence might look like in human form; how humans might fit into a computerized world; genetic algorithms (computations that improve on themselves based on past performance); and quantum teleportation (instantaneously moving objects over great distances by deconstructing and reconstructing them).

"What has changed in science since the first TRON came out is the creation of quantum computing and teleportation," Dick said. "We brought these ideas to the filmmakers. It is now conceivable that you could one day take a particle in the real world and teleport it into a quantum computer. The process for teleportation would likely involve sending the particle information into the computer, while the hydrogen and oxygen stays in the real world. The idea of emergence is also new. It says that in complex systems, or systems that behave in complex ways, behaviors emerge in ways you could not have predicted. An example of that in the film is the ISO characters [a race of self-created programs]."

That kind of input helped guide Kosinski's aesthetic in overt ways, such as manipulating the laws of physics (aka "heightened physics") to further distinguish the TRON world, as well as in unexplained design subtleties, like having canisters alongside the teleportation electronics—ostensibly to contain the chemicals and gases necessary for reintegrating digitized humans into the physical world.

" The input from the scientists helped tell a more consistent story," Carroll said. "We looked at what happens when computer programs become increasingly intelligent, and genetic algorithms become a big part of programs writing themselves, learning and changing, and going beyond what programmers initially wanted them to do. Would a computer program with a personality and aspirations have the same sense of consciousness as a person? Would you be the same person if you were uploaded into a computer?"

Meanwhile, Kosinski, who holds a degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford University, brought his own technical savvy to the table, explaining where he pushed the envelope in filmmaking. He employed the latest generation of the 3D fusion camera system developed by James Cameron that used adjoining digital cameras representing each eye, with lenses that drew in considerable light. The actors' costumes were specially designed illuminated flexible suits. And his rendering team advanced the backwards-aging process they developed for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to depict Clu, a rogue computer program that looked like a younger Bridges. They used motion-capture sensors on Bridges' face to map a digital head, which was digitally composited on to a younger body double. "It's the first time an actor played against himself at a younger age," Kosinski notes.

Both the panel and meetings between scientists and TRON: Legacy creatives were organized by The National Academy of Sciences' Science and Entertainment Exchange, which pairs scientists and filmmakers for more accurate depictions of scientific principles in films and television. Since forming two years ago, the organization has picked up steam as both audiences and rising filmmakers, many of whom grew up in the digital age, have become more technologically sophisticated.

"Most Hollywood people don't ever talk to or think about scientists—there's a cultural barrier," Carroll said. "But science benefits when movies are more faithful to how scientists work, and movies benefit if they take science more seriously."

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